In the beginning, there was negligible muscle on my doughy, 19-year-old body. At this point, I didn’t have the information. Then I did, thanks to FigureAthlete.com (RIP). I started to lift free weights in an effort to get stronger and more muscular. I followed 5×5 for a while. I played around with set and rep schemes on my own. I tried different programs like 5-3-1 and the cube method. But after the initial burst of newbie gains, my progress halted to a near stop. It was confusing and frustrating. I was in a strength plateau for a long time, convinced that I was just weak and had crappy genes. Fortunately that’s not true (for the most part). After taking an objective look at my situation, I started to figure out where I was going wrong. Now I’ve finally started to get some long overdue PRs.
Maybe you’re in the same boat. You’ve been working out for a while. You’re comfortable with the exercises and have been pretty consistent with your workouts. But you’re wondering why you aren’t getting stronger or why your body isn’t changing (there’s a correlation between the two).
So while I’m not the strongest, I certainly have experience not getting stronger! Learn from my mistakes. If you’ve plateaued, it’s most likely due to one of the following reasons.
You’re don’t know what to do or you’re not on the right plan. This issue is understandably most prevalent with newbies, and it is also the easiest issue to remedy. With research or help from a trainer you can be on your way. If you don’t really know what you’re doing, there are usually two hurdles to overcome. First is understanding the basics of exercising with weights. You must learn the exercises, which muscles they work, and proper form. After that is the concept of progressive overload (gradually lifting more weight over time), which deals more with programming. But more on that in the next point.
For someone who is transitioning from just working out to training specifically to get stronger, 5×5 Stronglifts works well. Beyond that there’s a huge amount of intermediate level programs. They all have pros and cons. At that point it will be about finding one that works for you. If you’re not already lifting free weights, doing squats, bench, and deadlift for heavy reps of 5, that’s a good place to start.
Beginner resources: Starting Strength and Practical Programming by Mark Ripptoe and 5×5 Stronglifts.
Not increasing your workload
It’s not enough to show up at the gym and go through the motions. If you want to get stronger and/or change your body, there needs to be a concerted effort to lift more weight over time (progressive overload). Once you enter the intermediate phase, many strength programs tell you what weight you should be lifting, usually as a percentage of your one rep max. But if you’re just winging it, it’s easy to stagnate. No matter what level you’re at, you should be writing down the sets, reps, and weight for each lift so that you can work to gradually increase the load. In my experience, this simple concept escapes many people who want to get stronger or change their body. I should also note that to increase your weights, you must be consistent. If you frequently miss workouts you’re going to have a hard time building strength.
Intermediate programs: 5-3-1, Texas method, Madcow 5×5
Your form sucks
The better your form is, the more efficiently you execute a lift. Proper form is also important for avoiding injury and working the correct muscle groups. Kinks in your form usually indicate weaknesses in certain muscle groups, which will hold you back from getting stronger. Correcting your form might make the movement feel harder at first, but that’s because you’re no longer compensating with faulty movement patterns. You’re using muscles that may have taken a backseat when you moved with less efficient form, and you might be going through a deeper range of motion. But trust that your body will adapt and move and feel better.
The best suggestion is to get help from a coach who can observe you and give you immediate feedback. If that’s not an option, record yourself and do your research. While it’s not as as effective as working with a coach, it’s better than continuing to lift with bad form and not working to correct it.
You’re not eating enough
As a human garbage disposal, this one is a bit baffling to me. But there are apparently people out there who don’t eat enough. You need fuel for a hard workout and for recovery. If you feel drained or lightheaded during your workout, add more carbs an hour to an hour and a half before lifting. And you want your overall diet to support your training as well. If you’re eating a bunch of junk or just not eating enough in general, it will reflect in your performance. Of course the specifics of what and how much you eat will be unique to the individual, but there are general guidelines to follow. As I mentioned above, carbs before your workout. You’ll also want carbs after your workout. In general, carbs are pretty important for strength. So is protein. Aim for mostly unprocessed food. Yes, this is pretty general info. For specifics, hire a coach or do some research. Some resources I like are Precision Nutrition, Renaissance Periodization, and IIFYM.
This one has personally been my biggest downfall. I’d follow a program and get to a point where I had to lift an amount of weight that scared me, and I would back down. I’ve said before that one-rep maxes are my cardio because they give me heart-pounding anxiety. So I would end up playing it safe and sticking to weight that I was comfortable with. And because I usually train alone, it’s easy for me to hide or be wishy-washy with my workouts. But you’ve got to push past that fear. The more you do it, the less scary it gets. With enough exposure you won’t think twice about a weight that used to scare you.
One thing that’s helped me has been rejoining a powerlifting team. I feel safer attempting a one-rep max because there’s a coach spotting me. It also keeps me accountable and prevents me from avoiding heavy lifts. It’s going to be trickier if you workout alone. Like any fear, it’s something that you have to conquer and push through.
Most of these problems can be fixed by hiring a coach. I’m stubborn as hell and like to do things on my own, so I get the resistance. But it really can be a game changer. After rejoining the powerlifting team, I hit a 10 lb PR on my squat, which had been stagnant for years. It felt really awesome to finally make some progress.
If you’re ready to start taking your strength seriously, but you’re not sure where to start, I’ve got you. My FREE 5-week workout plan is great for beginners to intermediate lifters and includes instructions for progressive overload. Ideally you’ll need gym access, but the plan includes modifications to workout from home. I do all the thinking, you do all the lifting ;). Just click the button below to get your copy!